One of the endlessly fascinating aspects of the Cyrus Cylinder is trying to understand the man behind its creation, Cyrus the Great. What were his intentions and motivations? What kind of ruler was he? What kind of man? In trying to flesh out this historical figure, it seems only natural to want to know what he looked like. But here we fall abruptly short.
There’s a relief at his capital in Pasargadae that some have argued might depict him, but otherwise we have no surviving ancient images. Yet the traditions passed down from the Greek historians (notably the stories of his life in Herodotus, and Xenophon’s glowing account in the Cyropaedia) and the Bible (where he is praised for allowing the Jews to return to Judah and rebuild their temple) ensured that Cyrus’s name remained in circulation for centuries in Western thought—and art. His great deeds and benevolence rendered him a suitable subject for emulation and representation, and though these images may not reveal what the real Cyrus looked like, they shed fascinating light on the way that subsequent generations perceived him.
With all of this in mind, I visited Elizabeth Morrison, senior curator in the Getty Museum’s Department of Manuscripts, to see some of the many medieval faces of Cyrus.
Illuminations discussed in this video:
Initial I: King Cyrus II Enthroned from a Bible. Circle of Stefan Lochner; German, about 1450. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig I 13, fol. 148v
Initial I: King Cyrus II Ordering the Building of the Temple in Jerusalem in a Bible. Unknown artist; Italian, about 1280–90. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig I 11, fol. 195v
Cyrus, the Grandson of Astyages, King of the Medes, Given Suck by a Wild Animal in Giovanni Boccaccio, Concerning the Fates of Illustrious Men and Women. Boucicaut Master; French, about 1413–15. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 63, fol. 51v
Cyrus the Great, Founder of the Persian Empire, Killed by Thamaris, Queen of the Massetai in Giovanni Boccaccio, Concerning the Fates of Illustrious Men and Women. Boucicaut Master; French, about 1413–15. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 63, fol. 58